The problem with PDFs: It’s an accessibility thing


The letters P, D and F – which stand for “portable document format – changed the world back in 1991, and they have become a common source of information on college websites. Rather than creating a page with web-based content, someone simply uploads a PDF.

PDFs are great for lots of things: If someone sends a flier or ad to an outside organization, prints event invites or writes an article, a PDF guarantees the document will look the same on any computer. All the images will be just where they should, and things like footnotes will be presented in the correct way. Plus, a PDF can be exported from just about every application and read on any device released in the last few decades.

So, if PDFs are so great, why will all Kentucky Community & Technical College System (KCTCS) public-facing websites be PDF-free by 2023? That answer is easy: When compared with HTML content, information published in a PDF is harder to find, use and maintain.

This article is part of a monthly series provided by the National Council for Marketing & Public Relations (NCMPR), an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.

“Do not use PDFs to present digital content that could and should otherwise be a web page,” write usability experts Jakob Nielsen and Anna Kaley for Nielson Norman Group, a research and consulting firm focused on user experience.

That’s because, unless created correctly, PDFs can often be bad for accessibility and cause a plethora of problems:

  • They create content chaos. It’s important to create content that is clear, concise, structured appropriately and focused on meeting students’ needs. A PDF document for offline use does not fit the context of the web and can result in a poor user experience. It’s also worth remembering that although many devices and browsers have PDF viewers built-in – and they are freely available to download – there are still users who do not have those viewers or cannot download them.
  • They aren’t mobile-friendly. Roughly 60% of KCTCS website traffic comes from a mobile device. On responsive websites, content, images and other page elements shift around to fit the size of the user’s device and browser. However, PDFs are not designed to be flexible in their layout. They generally require a lot of zooming and scrolling both vertically and horizontally. This is especially troublesome with long documents on mobile phones.
  • They’re big trouble for navigation and orientation. Depending on the user’s device and browser, PDFs might open in a new window or tab, and the user is taken away from the college website. This means users lose the context of the website and its navigation, making it harder for them to return to the site.
  • They aren’t inherently accessible. There’s additional work that needs to be done to ensure a PDF is inclusive. You can’t just export it and assume it’s good to go. The text must be searchable, fonts must allow characters to be extracted to text, and form fields must be labeled as interactive and include error messages with proper timing. These to-dos are labor intensive and not easy to learn.
  • They aren’t trackable. PDFs completely lack the ability to collect data. Marketers may be able to see how many times a PDF was downloaded from a page, but they have no idea what people did with it afterward. Want to know how much people read, how long they engaged with a document, which pages and topics people found interesting, or which links they clicked on? Sorry, you’re out of luck. You can’t even tell if people actually opened the PDF or just left it in their downloads folder. In a world where every marketing action must be measurable, colleges can’t afford to use an untrackable format.

Now comes the big question: How can this problem be fixed? If faculty and staff continue to hold on to PDFs for dear life, how can college marketers and administrators get people thinking “digital first?”

  • Share the analytics. Track downloads of PDFs. Are they actually being used? Studies show that more than 30% of PDFs on websites were never downloaded. Work with faculty and staff to assess the inventory of PDFs on the website. This exercise is incredibly helpful because many people find old PDFs still available that are both inaccessible and outdated. Some can quickly be identified, deleted or transferred to an internal site. Determine which PDFs are needed and convert them to a digital-friendly format.
  • Show the ux (user experience). Test for some of the common PDF problems identified above by having content creators add the WAVE web accessibility evaluation tool, which is a free extension, to their browser. They can also put the PDFs through a screen reader. Marketers and administrators can tell content owners that PDFs are bad, but when they show how real people are struggling, the message will come through.
  • Lay out the risks. PDFs tend to duplicate information that’s also available online. If both records aren’t kept up to date, there’s a risk of misinformation due to multiple sources of information. If an organization doesn’t publish accessible PDFs, it also risks losing the trust of students, not to mention running into legal action and hefty fines – which can be as much as $5,000 per page.
  • Tally up the potential costs. If a college website visitor can’t use a PDF, what are the opportunity costs in lost enrollments or lost opportunities to connect? What are the operational costs when people call the admissions or financial aid office for information that’s buried on page 58 of a PDF? Those financial aid forms aren’t innocent either. It can be complex to keep PDF forms accessible, and users don’t want to print a form and mail it in. Using an online accessible version, such as Microsoft Forms or Kintivo, aids accessibility and user experience.
  • Making the move to PDF-free If colleges rely on PDFs that aren’t accessible, they’re forcing users with disabilities to find other ways of accessing that information, such as calling, emailing or live chatting. It makes for a terrible user experience and necessitates more employees to answer questions more often. To reduce phone calls or support emails, have that information available in an alternative format, benefiting both the college and users.

And that’s the biggest problem: PDFs block people from accessing information easily. What’s more, it’s not a quick process to get PDFs remediated correctly. So a message to college leaders whose sites are loaded with PDFs: It’s time to get rid of them.

Modern content formats make it possible for colleges to create material that’s both measurable and looks great on any device. Technology has come a long way since the PDF first came on the scene in the ’90s, and audiences have changed significantly, as well. It’s time for college web content to change, too.

About the Author

Jackie Watson
Jackie Watson is director of digital strategy for the Kentucky Community & Technical College System. She is NCMPR’s District 2 director and was named the organization’s 2020 national Rising Star, which recognizes an up-and-coming communication professional at a two-year college who has demonstrated special creativity or ability in college marketing and PR and shows evidence of a promising future in the field.
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